Chapter 4 – Yukon First Nations’ Relationship with Newcomers

Highways and Social Change

One of the most important events that occurred in the lives of Yukon Indigenous peoples was the construction of the Alaska Highway [1]. Over the course of its construction and for decades afterwards, permanent changes occurred in the lives of Indigenous peoples living near the highway. These changes included shifts in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their land, and dramatic changes in people’s familial or kinship ties, which were an absolutely essential part of society (Cruikshank 1985:185). Before the highway’s construction, there were few roads in Yukon, and people travelled by boat, on horseback, by foot, on snowshoes, and by sled.

Although discussions regarding the construction of the Alaska Highway began in the 1930s, the World War II bombing of the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour by the Japanese military on December 7, 1941, prompted the expedited construction of the road as a means of protecting the northwest coast from attack. There was no consultation with Indigenous peoples when the decision to build the Alaska Highway was made. In March 1942, Canada and the United States signed a letter of agreement to build the highway (Brebner 1985:9). The agreement stated that the United States Army would survey and construct a pioneer, or temporary, road using Engineer troops. Then the highway would be completed by the U.S. Public Roads Administration. The U.S. would maintain the highway throughout the war, and Canada would obtain control of the road once the war ended. Notably, the United States would also be allowed to use timber, gravel, and rock along the route of the highway in order to facilitate construction (Brebner 1985:11–12).

Construction of the pioneer road brought 18,000 U.S. Army Engineer Corps men and Public Roads Administration workers to Yukon (Cruikshank 1985:175). The population of Whitehorse immediately jumped from approximately 750 people to almost 20,000, most of them American soldiers. Once the pioneer road was completed in 1942, the permanent road was begun, and with it a total of 34,500 men arrived. To house all these men, “line camps” consisting of approximately 100 to 200 men were set up every 10 to 15 miles along the road. The permanent road was completed in 1943.

The impact on local Indigenous peoples was profound, particularly in terms of resource overharvesting, since more people were hunting for the same provisions. For instance, in 1942 the U.S. government asked the Yukon government to allow the United States Army and Canadian civilian highway workers the right to hold resident hunting licenses (Government of Yukon 1920). Some Indigenous people who lived through that time have stated that animals were overhunted for sport and often carcasses were left to rot (Northern Native Broadcasting 1988b). Because of the overhunting that was happening, particularly along the Alaska Highway and Haines Road, in 1942 the Canadian government placed approximately 10,000 km2 in reserve. This area was traditionally part of the hunting lands of Southern Tutchone people, including today’s Champagne and Aishihik First Nation and Kluane First Nation. The Yukon Commissioner then declared that there would be a no-shooting zone along the Alaska Highway and created the Kluane Game Sanctuary (Northern Native Broadcasting 1988b; Yukon Territory Ordinance 1942 in Cruikshank 1985:177). This decision prohibited newcomers and Indigenous people from hunting and trapping within the game sanctuary, even though the fur supervisors at Indian Affairs Branch knew that overhunting was the result of big-game hunting by newcomers and U.S. Army construction crews (Canada 1950). Indigenous people were therefore forcibly removed from their traditional land and subsistence locales. The establishment of a game sanctuary was just one of many government interventions that took place during highway construction and the years immediately following the end of World War II.

The rise in population also meant that diseases spread very quickly with so many men living in close proximity to each other and to local people already living near the path of the highway. Another impact of the highway’s construction was the “tragedies of girls who froze to death after drinking parties or who died in other violent ways because of their association with the [non-Indigenous] men” (Cruikshank 1985:181). However, some Indigenous women married non-Indigenous crewmen and raised families together in Yukon.

Other changes included the move away from river travel as the primary means of transport. Indigenous people had been working on steamboats as deckhands and woodcutters for decades, but with road development, steamboats disappeared from Yukon rivers and many Indigenous people lost part of their livelihood (Coates 1985:154; Cruikshank 1985:179). The building of the Alaska Highway and other roads also allowed the establishment of fur-trade posts near these roads. Normally, Indigenous trappers would bring their furs in every year to trade for goods. During the later war years, fur prices dropped because of low demand in other parts of the world. People began settling permanently near highway trade posts even as they ceased trapping furs, since it was no longer profitable. Instead of participating in their traditional yearly round, they chose to search for employment as highway crewmembers (Cruikshank 1985:176; Northern Native Broadcasting 1988b: 00:52:00).

The decline in fur prices caused financial hardship for many families. A family allowance was put in place, which provided each family with five dollars per month. There were strict rules around the allowance: for example, children had to attend school. Wives and children began staying in towns close to day schools to collect the allowance, while husbands continued to trap far away. This separation caused issues within families and a shift in familial relations (Canada 1946). As well, the Revised Act to Provide Old Age Assistance, which provided money to seniors, was introduced in 1952. There were incidents of other family members taking the money, causing more familial discord (Cruikshank 1985:180). The forced registration of traplines also caused family and community disruptions because the government ignored matrilineal social organization, which clearly indicated hereditary rights. Many have argued that these interventions represented paternalism and coercion on the part of the government.

Construction of the highway also brought about other means of acculturation,[2] such as an increase in the use of alcohol, which caused social disruption. In the 1940s it was illegal for Indigenous people to purchase alcohol. Once the highway came, alcohol was readily available and “older natives overwhelmingly maintain that the highway brought alcohol abuse and an alarming amount of violence, grief and further social disruption” (Cruikshank 1985:183). Indigenous people were not legally allowed to purchase alcohol until 1967, but by then many families had been detrimentally affected.

  1. Another important project that was started at this time was the Canadian American Norman Oil Line or CANOL. It was meant to carry fuel from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to Alaska during World War II.  Although it functioned for less than a year “the pipeline was destructive to the environment in that it disturbed permafrost, causing flooding and erosion. There were oil spills…” and it destroyed habitats that Indigenous people relied on for their seasonal pursuits (see the  Alaska Highway Archives,
  2. Acculturation is defined as culture change resulting from contact between cultures. This is a process of external culture change.


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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Elena Castillo; Christine Schreyer; and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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